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Review: River (Junta Yamaguchi, 2023)

river

In 2020, Japanese director Junta Yamaguchi released his feature film debut Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, a micro-budget sci-fi comedy with a time-travel theme and an abundance of creativity. The film found success, winning awards at film festivals, and was released internationally on blu ray through Third Window Films. Three years later Junta Yamaguchi has a bigger budget, better equipment, and most importantly a new idea in River. Does Junta Yamaguchi maintain the creativity and fun of Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, or was it just a one-off?

River: Synopsis

Mikoto and Chino try to explain the situation to some patrons

River is set at Fujiya Inn, a picturesque old inn in Kyoto on the Kibune river. It is a seemingly typical day there, with staff attending to patrons, cooks working the kitchen, patrons enjoying meals or a dip in the hot spring baths. Staff-member Mikoto (Riko Fujitani) stands contemplatively at the back of the inn in front of the river when she is called by her manager to help him prepare a room for the next customers. They clean up together, sharing in some small-talk, when suddenly Mikoto finds herself standing back at the river. Her manager calls her again, and they confusedly go about cleaning the room again, remarking on a strange sense of deja vu when, yet again, Mikoto finds herself standing back at the river once more.

She, along with everyone else in the area, is caught in a time loop! Every two minutes, time resets and everyone finds themselves back where they started. Mikoto back at the river, her manager out in front of the inn, fellow staff member Chino (Saori) in the basement kitchen warming sake, one patron perpetually returning to the hot baths, two others at a infinitely replenishing lunch table they can never empty, and many others. Together, they have to work out how to deal with the time-loop, find its cause, and somehow return time back to normal.

Creating Joy

The group try to devise a plan of action

River is, thankfully, just as fun as its predecessor (if not more so!). It’s as wonderfully creative as ever, and the enhanced budget allows for a much more expansive setting than last time. The inn and its surrounding area are absolutely lush, and we are treated to a good deal of it as we follow Mikoto rushing around it trying to deal with this strange situation. The film retains the sense of fun and creativity that was abundant in Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, and is a joy to watch. The picture quality is much improved compared to Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (which was filmed on smartphones). Watching the making-of documentary for River on the Third Window blu ray you can see they’ve upgraded to nice, big, proper cameras, and that upgrade shows on screen.

Like Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, River has a lot of energy. The camera is almost always moving, with each two minute loop shot in one continuous take. The camera follows Mikoto as she rushes around the inn, meeting with other characters and trying to attend to patrons while working out what is going on. The film proceeds at breakneck speed, with characters all frantically trying to squeeze everything in within each two minute time-limit before everything resets again. There is a lot of rushing around, which makes the few times Mikoto slows down and takes some time to contemplate all the more impactful. The film is fast and fun, but not so much or for so long that it becomes tiresome.

Watching the making-of documentary also makes it clear how much fun the cast and crew had in making River. There is a real undercurrent of joy to the proceedings. Each two-minute loop is filmed and timed, everything has to be done before the two minutes have elapsed, and changes and improvisations are made on the fly in order to shorten or lengthen certain passages of dialogue or action when needed so that everything fits just-so. Whenever Yamaguchi confirms the sequence came in on time and has been completed, the cast and crew celebrate and congratulate each other. When problems appear, they are met head-on, collaboratively and creatively. For example the weather is extremely erratic during the shoot, with frequent bouts of heavy snow. This would effect continuity, but instead the snow appearing and disappearing between loops is remarked upon by the film’s characters themselves, explained as being a side-effect of the time loops messing with the environment on a macro-level, and what could have been a problem in continuity instead builds on the lore of the film.

One small thing from the documentary I would like to mention is a cast-member gets excited because they see a taxi which has the symbol of a four-leaf clover on it, which apparently is a very rare sight in Kyoto (most of the taxis only have a three-leaf clover), and this just reminded me of The Makanai, which is also set in Kyoto, and has characters talking about these taxis as a minor plot point.

If you have seen Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes you will recognise the majority of faces of River, as most of its cast appears in both films. I think this helps enhance the feeling of fun built in to the film, as the cast members are all incredibly comfortable with each other. They’re clearly having a great time working together, and this joy seeps through the screen to be enjoyed by the audience.

The Uncertain Future

Beyond simply being fun and creative, River also has a good deal of heart. The time-loop central to the plot is a fantastic vehicle for exploring our fears and worries in regards to the ceaseless march of time. What will happen to me in the future? Why can’t I just enjoy my life as it is now, for just a little bit longer? Many of the characters have reasons for not wanting time to restart. One patron is an author with an upcoming deadline, for example, who is enjoying this little extra bit of relaxation time without having to worry about his commitments. Others have their reasons too, but that’s something you’ll have to watch the film to discover more about.

An author struggles to progress with his agent watching on

In any case, the novelty doesn’t last forever, and eventually everyone becomes ready and willing to step in to the future, uncertain and uncomfortable as it may be. How the characters begin to face up to reality and their need to move forward gives River its emotional heart and makes it a more complete experience than Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes. We may all sometimes wish time would stand still, but eventually we need it to start right back up again in order for life to be lived.

River: Conclusion and Rating

Delightful nonsense

River is great. At the time of writing, it’s my favourite film of 2023. It’s a joy to watch, delightfully creative, a lot of fun, and even deceptively deep. Riko Fujitani carries the brunt of the film on her shoulders as its most prominent character Mikoto and is extremely watchable and charming, and is helped by a broad ensemble of enjoyable characters who each have at least one little moment of their own as well.

If you enjoyed Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes then you’ll definitely enjoy River, and if you buy the Third Window blu ray release I would also heartily recommended watching the making-of documentary included as an extra!

8/10

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